UN.GIFT Interview with filmmaker Mimi Chakarova
Since her film debuted last year, filmmaker and photojournalist Mimi Chakarova has been screening 'The Price of Sex' around the world, recently at the Human Rights Watch film festivals in San Francisco and London. The feature-length documentary exposes the netherworld of sex trafficking and abuse that so many women find themselves enslaved in. UN.GIFT sat down with Ms Chakarova to discuss her personal quest in making this film, the challenges of combating human trafficking, and the vital importance of education in efforts to end the trafficking of humans beings globally.
UN.GIFT: What inspired you to make a film about human trafficking and the sex trade?
MC: What motivated and inspired me changed over time. Initially, I wanted to see if what I was reading and seeing in the press was fairly reported. The sensationalism surrounding this issue really troubled me. So, I challenged myself to see if I could do a better job of understanding why women were sold into sexual slavery after the collapse of communism.
Over the years, no matter how difficult the journey, I felt a sense of obligation to carry on. I grew up in a village in Bulgaria. I migrated abroad as well, and my family struggled with some of the same challenges of poverty that others faced. I felt a strong need to return and expose something that many chose to ignore or were too afraid to acknowledge as a post-communist plague in our society.
UN.GIFT: During the decade you worked on this film did you see the situation change?
MC: I wish I could be optimistic and say that we can eradicate slavery. I don't think we can completely stop human trafficking, but I absolutely do believe that we can significantly reduce the numbers. The first step is informing people and starting a discourse that can influence behavior change. The second is providing opportunities for women - through education and work - so they don't have to leave their communities and risk being trafficked. The third, and by far the least talked about, is reducing the demand by educating young men about the social and devastating consequences of purchased sex.
UN.GIFT: You focus mostly on women from Eastern Europe. Why are women from that part of the world particularly vulnerable?
MC: After the fall of the Soviet Union, millions of young women in Eastern Europe came of age amid economic misery. Their childhood fantasies of a better life in the West became a trafficker's golden opportunity.
In the 90's, agents and brokers arranged travel and job placements as waitresses or nannies; young women were escorted to their destinations and delivered to their employers. They quickly realized that there was no café or family, but a pimp who forced them to work as prostitutes.
Currently, most women are trafficked by someone they know: a relative, an acquaintance, a boyfriend or a childhood friend. More than 60% are recruited by other women. Upon reaching the foreign land, they find themselves in coercive and abusive situations from which escape is both difficult and dangerous.
Along with losing her identity, a trafficked woman loses all personal freedom. She is often locked in a room, raped, beaten, starved and threatened. After this "break-in" period, the young woman realizes that resisting is hopeless. She is made to believe that if she works off her debt (the amount the pimp paid for her in addition to her daily living expenses and other miscellaneous fees) she can return home. Often women are sold multiple times and the cycle of debt never broken.
But in terms of numbers, if you were to focus on a region that is currently most problematic, it would be China. Asia is leading in numbers in both sex and labor trafficking. I met a lot of Chinese women sold for sex in Dubai and they go for the cheapest price. They are also exploited in some of the worst ways. My primary focus in the film, "The Price of Sex," has been on Eastern Europe, the West and parts of the Middle East.
UN.GIFT: Are there any programs/government initiatives/NGOs that you've come across that are particularly effective in combatting human trafficking?
MC: Yes, I profiled two women in the film whose work I greatly admire. I encourage people to find out more about them and support their efforts: http://priceofsex.org/content/get-involved
UN.GIFT: You went under cover to pose as a victim. Why did you chose to do so and what insight did you get from going under cover?
MC: I've worked and thought about sex trafficking for nearly 10 years now. It has changed the way I perceive not only individuals but governments and justice systems. Traffickers prey on the most desperate and vulnerable, because no one would look for them once they're sold into prostitution. The system is ruthless, and what makes it even more disturbing is that the supply of women is abundant. There is no shortage of people seeking a better life and willing to take their chances. I went undercover because I needed to understand how the system of trafficking works. I also needed to verify the information the trafficked women had shared with me.
Another reason to expose this widespread corruption and complacency was my own personal protest against the hypocritical systems that exploit their most vulnerable. And it's no longer my own burden to carry around. I am sharing it with others and urging them to join me by doing the same. I have the feeling that a number of people who watch "The Price of Sex" will be changed as well. I don't think that this is a film that will leave your mind an hour or two after you've seen it. It should linger for days, and hopefully even longer.
UN.GIFT: What were the main challenges you encountered in the making of your film?
MC: The most difficult aspect has always been access. No one wants to be photographed or interviewed -- not the women who've suffered, not the corrupt officials, not the pimps and traffickers. So, how do you find a way to tell a story that exists in the underbelly of so many countries? How do you connect the dots? And how do you stay safe while doing it? These were my biggest challenges and why it took seven years to report and another three to produce and distribute.
UN.GIFT: How has "The Price of Sex" been received? Will it be screened internationally? (How/when can our readers see your film?)
MC: The viewer response and impact of "The Price of Sex" so far has been remarkable. The film was released in 2011 and is reaching national and international audiences at film festivals, college auditoriums, community centers and libraries, forums organized by human rights organizations, and in conferences, embassies and theaters worldwide. The U.S. State Department requested permission to use "The Price of Sex" as a training tool in embassies throughout the world. At the beginning of this year, I presented the film to a group of ambassadors and diplomats serving appointments in Ottawa, Canada.
Every major screening so far has been sold out and my involvement in engaging audiences continues to grow. "The Price of Sex"is the recipient of the 2011 Nestor Almendros Award for courage in filmmaking at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York and the winner of the 2011 Daniel Pearl Award for Outstanding International Investigative Reporting in Kiev, Ukraine. It also aired on the Documentary Channel in the U.S. in March.
Wednesday, April 11 at 4:30 p.m. ET
Sunday, April 29 at 9:30 pm ET
Tuesday, May 22 at 8:00 pm ET
For more information visit www.documentarychannel.com
UN.GIFT: What can people do to combat human trafficking?
MC: I hope that people who see "The Price of Sex" can leave with questions and the initiative to ask. If you're not informed, you are living in darkness. Although there is this notion of ignorance as bliss and I understand its appeal. The more you know, the more responsible you become of changing. And once you know what happens to others, it is your duty as a human being to take a position. Pretending that what's right in front of you doesn't exist just because it disrupts your comfort zone is unacceptable.
I would like to encourage your viewers to visit http://priceofsex.org and learn more. I would also urge them to react and post their comments. It's through this global discourse and sharing of ideas and experiences that we truly bring such issues to the surface. And that's always an important first step before taking action.
All photos courtesy of Mimi Chakarova